Simpsons is a place with history, established in 1828 as a coffee house and chess café, with guests over the years including Gladstone, Disraeli and Vincent van Gogh, and has appeared in literature in E.M. Forster’s Howards End, as well as in P.G. Wodehouse books and as a dining venue for Sherlock Holmes and Watson in “The Illustrious Client”. I have a particular fondness for the building as it was a chess venue in the 19th century, and recently hosted some international chess tournaments (I used to play chess quite a lot as a youngster, and still do, albeit considerably less well, today).
The dining room is very grand, with lovely dark wood panelling, chandeliers and a series of booths along the walls in addition to regular tables. The menu is, as one might guess, traditional British – no spruce oil is likely to intrude into your roast beef dinner here. Starters ranged from £9 to £17, main courses £17 to £33.50. The wine list is not overly long and starts at £24.50, with an emphasis on French wines but with a nod to the ex-colonies; there were many more red wines than white, presumably reflecting the meaty menu. Mark-ups were less than one might imagine: Hugel Gewurtztraminer 2008 was £42 for a wine you can pick up in the shops for £12, Mersault Louis Latour 2005 was £70 compared to a retail price of around £22, while Chateauneuf du Pape Vieux Telegraph 2007 weighed in at £99 for a wine that retails at around £44.
A trio of small langoustines (£17) were served with a forgettable salad of artichokes, tomatoes and leaves with an oily dressing. The langoustines themselves were adequate but cooked rather too long, and had very limited taste (0/10). A brief taste of my companion’s baked crab did not give me the impression that my choice of starter was faulty.
Simpsons is noted for its dishes that are served at the table, and a Dover Sole (£33.50), though rather over-cooked, had fish of reasonable quality (1/10). Best was Beef Wellington (£29.75), with good pastry and decent Scottish beef cooked medium-rare, with an admittedly less than inspired mushroom duxelle, and what would best be described as gravy (3/10 for the nice beef and pastry). Vegetables on the side were adequate e.g. Jersey Royals.
A tasting set of desserts was not good, to be honest. Best was an adequate treacle pudding, but the others that I sampled e.g. soggy hazelnut bavarois and pear and orange crumble with poor texture, did not do anything to enhance the reputation of British pastry cooking (0/10).
Service was an amiable shambles. A glass of wine I had ordered for my main course did not turn up on the arrival of the food, and requesting it seemed to result in a sort of Chinese whispers game between several staff, more than one of which came to reassure me that it would at some point arrive, when I really just wanted one of them to actually pour the wine into a glass and deliver it. Eventually this particular project was completed, but was rather in the tradition of British engineering projects i.e. very late and possibly over-budget. In general, topping up was erratic.
I really wanted to like Simpsons, with its fine history, grand room and appealing menu. However from a food viewpoint it was a bit of a relic, with flickers of competence in the kitchen and decent ingredients, but at a price that was way out of line with the level of cooking achieved. Perhaps at some point it will get a much-needed makeover.